MANY SCHOOLS FAIL TO RECOGNISE THE DEADLY CONSEQUENCES OF SUICIDAL TENDENCIES IN CHILDREN
Depression is one of the most common emotional disorders in children (affecting as many as one in every 33 children) which can produce serious difficulties and interfere in a child’s life and development. One of the most devastating consequences of depression in children is the high rate of attempted and successful suicides. It has been estimated that between 90 and 97% of suicide victims have suffered from a mental illness, and in almost half the cases a diagnosis of depression has been found. In South Africa, research has indicated that 1 in 5 teens think about harming themselves, with 7.8% of these youths actually attempting to carry out their wish to harm themselves. Other studies have found that 24,5% of attempted suicide cases amongst black South Africans have occurred in youths aged 17 or below. Further statistics attest to this chronic problem, indicating that 34% of black youths have considered suicide as an option in response to stressful life situations, such as divorce of their parents, conflict and love/relationship problems. These devastating statistics highlight the need for the early identification of possible emotional problems in children, thus preventing these children from carrying out suicidal inclinations before it is too late.
Learning the warning signs of suicidal tendencies can help save a child’s life. Unfortunately, many of us do not what these signs are, and will often dismiss them as common characteristics of adolescent development. Of the possible individuals who could assist in the identification of children who are predisposed to suicide attempts, teachers are perhaps best placed to provide support and intervention. Teachers are most often the first people adolescents may approach for help when experiencing emotional conflict. If, however, teachers are unaware of the symptoms of depression and the possibility of suicide amongst students in their classes, then it is understandable that they may overlook children at risk. Educating teachers as to the signs and symptoms of both depression and suicide is thus vital in both the prevention and early intervention of attempted suicides. It would seem, however, that many schools fail to see the deadly consequences of depression and suicidal tendencies amongst children, thus neglecting a responsibility towards the youth they teach on a daily basis.
Recognising the need for prevention and intervention in schools, the National Depression and Anxiety Support Group have developed and successfully implemented a Depression and Suicide Prevention Program. The program is designed to educate teachers as to the early warning signs of both depression and suicide in children, equipping them with practical solutions to these problems. Zane Wilson, Chairman and Founder of the Support Group, feels that “…the support group has the tools needed to assist schools in the identification of students with suicidal tendencies, and yet schools are resistant to accepting this help for those children in their care”. The program is provided as a free service to schools, and yet the Support Group has met with opposition from schools as to the implementation of the program with their teachers. Therry Nhlapo, Executive Director of the Depression and Anxiety Support Group has worked closely with the Education Department in an attempt to address the problem of suicide amongst South Africa’s youth. Therry has already successfully completed the program with 60 teachers (at Soweto College, Eldorado Park and Robertsham Primary School), and in so doing helped to prevent the untimely death of many children. Therry believes that “…the program is helpful in preventing suicide before it occurs. If we can reduce the number of suicides in South Africa then we know that we achieved something. Helping teachers to recognise the symptoms of depression and suicide can significantly decrease the numbers of children who drop out of school and attempt suicide”.
The realisation that this is a chronic problem facing South Africa, has prompted the Support Group to bring out a world-renowned expert in the diagnosis and treatment of depression amongst children and adolescents. Professor Ron Rapee will carry out a number of workshops targeting not only mental health care professionals, but also teachers, social workers, etc. Prof. Rapee will be touring South Africa, giving workshops in Durban, Johannesburg and Cape Town.
The responsibility for our children’s lives not only rests in our own, but also the hands of those that care for them. Schools and teachers should equip themselves with the necessary knowledge and skills that might help save the lives of hundreds of children.